New Media and the Church: Looking Beyond COVID-19

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Last week, Back to God Ministries International’s Chinese ministry leader, Jerry An, published an article on WeChat that has gone viral among Chinese Christians. With more than 22,000 views, and numerous shares and summaries beyond that, what makes this article so popular? Perhaps the insights of Pastor An, who has been working in new media ministry for several years, are worth considering by American Christians as well. Below are some highlights from his article.

An believes that the “new normal” we are all experiencing as a result of COVID-19 should not be seen as temporary. Rather, the church is learning to embrace new media as a way of implementing its mission, and this learning should continue—both for as long as this situation continues, and beyond. Why? An says that new media is not just about having tools to use when we need them, but implies a conversion of our way of thinking. 

As the church, An suggests there are three main attitudes we have towards media and technology:

  • Alienation (better to avoid its dangers altogether)
  • Instrumentalism (media is a tool, which can be used either for good or bad depending on who is using it)
  • Dialectic (the good and the bad influences are constantly in tension, so all we can do is observe from a distance)

Most of us probably fall in the second category, An claims.

A Fourth Option

But An suggests that churches have an opportunity right now to get beyond these sorts of attitudes. The pandemic has forced us to reflect on the nature and practices of the church as we shift towards online worship. What are the fundamental things that can’t be given up? What aspects that we thought were important can actually be done in different, perhaps even better, ways? These questions of ecclesiology are important, but so are the implications of how media is embedded in our answers. 

“The church is the original and largest media organization,” says An. “Media is a natural attribute of the church and the embodiment of the church’s functions. Christ himself is both the media and the content” of the Good News, the Gospel. As Christians—“little Christs”—we, too, are a form of media, revealing the image of Christ to a watching world. 

Discipleship, then, involves training and cultivating believers to be media people, witnesses of the Kingdom. What image do we present in our circle of friends on social media? What are we writing, sharing, and posting online, and what impact is that having on those who see it? Do our followers recognize our faith? As Christians, we are called to mission as a way of life. That call extends into all areas of life, including our digital presence. 

Certainly, there are challenges in this age of new media, especially for the church. But An emphasizes that this trend is inevitable so we might as well learn to embrace it. New media changes the way we think and learn. We learn in increasingly fragmented ways, and experience now teaches us more than books. As this trend continues, An highlights several competencies that will be increasingly important in the future. 

  1. Critical Thinking: Rote memorization is largely a thing of the past. Information is abundant and at our fingertips, so the new skill we need to develop is discernment. 
  2. Integration: A team no longer simply unites around the great vision of a strong leader. Today, everyone has their own ideas, even in the church. Leadership in this context involves integrating all of the various pieces that each person brings for the common good. But take note, this kind of leadership requires far more humility, patience and love. 
  3. Flexibility: Concentrating all our energies on a singular goal is no longer the model of success. Circumstances are changing rapidly, so flexibility is of great importance. (Consider small businesses during this pandemic: those able to adapt quickly to new regulations and realities will survive, while others will have to close their doors for good.) 

What About Churches?

How do we anticipate the changing realities that new media brings, and adapt in this season and beyond for the benefit of the Kingdom?

An suggests that we have to transition from a learning mode of rational thinking to that of deep experience. Theology has been presented in three-point sermons and systematic studies since the Reformation (and the invention of the printing press, a form of media that reshaped the nature of the church in its day). Today, theology is just as important, but the mode of transmission may need to change. In fact, An suggests art as the mode of the future.

“The church’s worship is in itself art,” An says. “Worship is not just preaching and nothing else; rather, the psalms, the prayers, the doxology, and even the sacraments and the sense of ritual, are in themselves an artistic manifestation.” So while paying attention to technology on the one hand, we ought to pay attention to art on the other as a way to express and impart the faith. 

Finally, now more than ever, says An, the progress and development of new media challenges us to return to the basics. New media is relational, experiential, public, and shared. So are discipleship and mission, the fundamental call and tasks of the church. 

As a first step, consider asking the young people in your church to help you use new media in this season of online church. Young people long to be contributors to the church, to have opportunities to exercise leadership and learn by experience. An suggests that this is itself a form of integrated discipleship, fitting in this new media age. 

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